Productive Disruption: On a mission to recreate space and programming from an Indigenous perspective | University of Calgary
Wanda Dalla Costa is Canada’s first Indigenous female architect. But her impact on the world through design and education deserves recognition beyond gender or ethnic qualifiers. She is simply remarkable the person dedicated to work that reflects its values. Free from the expectations of others.
Originally from Alberta and University of Calgary, who lives and works in Arizona, Dalla Costa’s name pops up regularly in design news feeds. She was named a Honorary member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in February. His company TAWAW Architectural Collective is one of the partners in the $240 million program Arts Commons Project Transformation into Calgary, and she was one of seven prominent Aboriginal architects featured in the work of Ron Chapman Documentary From Earth to Heaven.
She is successful, yes, but more than that, she stands out for her determination to challenge the status quo of design, to forge a career path that dares to be different.
In September 2020, the School of Architecture, Urbanism and Landscape (SAPL) hosted a conference, Equity in Design + Design Education, as part of a unique collective effort by all Canadian design schools to create a online lecture series during a particularly vulnerable period. During his presentation, the panelist Dr. Craig Wilkins remarked, “The age of the gentleman architect is over, the age of the activist architect has begun.”
Wilkins’ words galvanized what many designers had only begun to wrestle with: how to reinvent the role of designer(ers) in the context of global and social challenges.
Dalla Costa, March 2002, had been wrestling with similar ideas for nearly two decades since she enrolled in a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Calgary. “I didn’t identify with what I was taught in architecture school,” she recalls. “It was at a time when everyone was conforming to white boxes.”
White boxes were not part of Dalla Costa’s lived experience. Her core notions of space, gathering, and community were formed during summers and vacations at her grandmother’s on the reservation. “There were 60 of us crammed into a house. Double outbuildings. There was no running water. We played in the fields, we climbed in the barns. It was such a beautiful and inspiring place. we missed him nothing.”
Before enrolling in architecture school, Dalla Costa traveled around the world for seven years on a shoestring budget working haphazardly. Off the beaten track, she found people who clung to their cultural traditions and traditional ways of life. The spaces they used were linked to their values and ways of life. She was enamored and inspired by curves, architecture made of bamboo and rocks, expressive rooflines and underground caves.
Her education at design school did not match what she had seen and experienced on the reserve or in the 40 countries she had visited during her travels. Rather than despair or give up, Dalla Costa had a shrewd revelation: “Just because I’m being taught a certain direction doesn’t mean I can’t challenge it.”
This realization defined his professional trajectory.
Throughout her career, Dalla Costa has followed her intuition, convinced that there is another way of looking at architecture.
“When I look at our business and what we aim to do, I can’t just classify what I’m doing as architecture,” she notes. “It’s ethnography, really — we create spaces of possibility, plurality, relationality, spatial agency and resilience. We review cultural research and associated protocols. In particular, Dalla Costa learned what successful co-creation should look like through the work of the Hirini Matunga, Paul Memmott and Cathy Keys‘ work in Australia and Chez Diébédo Francis Kéré work in Africa.
These designers are redefining architecture through the prism of understanding and articulating the social and cultural values of the communities in which they design, advocating for more varied and broader voices in the field.
Dalla Costa also learns from other smaller-scale practitioners who look beyond the landscape to find out who lived there, how they traditionally lived, what their value systems were, and what they aspired to be. Because a space should be more than pleasing aesthetics.
“It’s an old way of seeing things,” notes Dalla Costa. “We need to bring a broader, more comprehensive and holistic view of what architecture really does and what it can be. It must have a social, ecological, cultural, spatial, physical, emotional, spiritual and mental impact. It does so much more than what we’ve given it in the past. »
SAPL Professor Dr. Graham Livesey was Dalla Costa’s academic supervisor when she was a student working on an Aboriginal community project in Edmonton. “Wanda Dalla Costa is currently one of the leading voices for Indigenous design and education in North America. It has been impressive to watch his career grow and see the effect of his work as he begins to take hold in schools of architecture in Canada and the United States.
As part of Calgary’s Arts Commons Transformation project, Dalla Costa’s company is examining traditional organizing systems – the sharing circle, the powwow – to see if they could have an impact on contemporary spaces. This ranges from marking the solstice and equinox in the manner of ancient Aboriginal architecture to honoring significant sites and the stories and songs that accompanied those places.
“These elements of productive disruption – whether they relate to land or how we recreate space and programming from an Indigenous lens – all of these elements are on the table to productively disrupt the city. “, says Dalla Costa. “We have designed our cities based on what has been done in [other places]but we never turn to [existing] place, what happened there, what was special about this place, and how to elevate it to recreate something hyper-local.
Although Dalla Costa’s job is to dig into the past and apply it to the present, she is very forward looking when it comes to mentoring and teaching the next generation of designers and designers. educators.
She works with Arizona State University’s Indigenous Design Collaborative, train Indigenous people to be educators through mentorship, support and the creation of opportunities for them. At Tawaw, Dalla Costa trains staff in all facets of a design business (marketing, accounting, management and project management) so that they can achieve associate level within five years.
Dalla Costa understands firsthand the challenges of design programs that only connect to European or Western traditions and is convinced that design education needs to be more reflective and inclusive of more people. She also saw and experienced the disconnect in how admissions decisions are made, based on assumptions of what it takes to succeed in the profession.
“I’m living proof – no one in my family went to college – I didn’t have the qualifications, the wallet, the access, the means or all the generations to learn how to get into a college and how to succeed in a practice or a profession or a university. I had to learn everything on my own. That’s why I am so determined to mentor young students – I don’t want them to feel what I have There has to be another way to do this job in a way that is fair, inclusive and honorable.”
Dalla Costa has received an impressive number of awards over the years, but none are as significant as seeing his mentees succeed. “Seeing the progress of the students I mentor – to teaching, to practicing, to seeing themselves as managers – is all the reward I need in this profession.”
*Wanda Dalla Costa will be officially inducted into the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada as an Honorary Member on October 2, 2022.